To meet state regs, GCSD develops its own tests

Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Demian Singleton, Guilderland's assistant superintendent for instruction, has long said the Commong Core Standards are worthwhile; it was simply New York State's hurried implementation of the standards that caused problems.

GUILDERLAND — Out of the starting blocks, the Race to the Top has been a slow slog here.

Half of the nearly $7 million awarded to New York State — out of over $4 billion nationwide — went to the State Education Department. The rest was portioned out to schools across New York based on a formula that gave poor districts more money.

That left Guilderland with $30,771 over four years — or $7,600 annually.

So far, the suburban district with about 4,900 students has spent over $1 million implementing requirements, which include new technology for computer-administered tests, as well as staff training.

These figures, which are not new, and have been covered by The Enterprise as plans unfolded, were recapped for the school board on Jan. 7 in an update on the federal program.

The board heard for the first time, though, that 20 Guilderland teachers were deemed “developing” and were required, under the new system, to have Teacher Improvement Plans, known as TIPs.

“We have teachers on TIPs that have no business being on a TIP,” Superintendent Marie Wiles told the school board. Referring to the education commissioner, she went on, “If John King were standing here, he’d say, ‘We need to learn from our experience.’…The numbers don’t really mean that much, to be really blunt.”

She also said the conversations with teachers required to have Teacher Improvement Plans were “very difficult” and the attempt was to make them meaningful rather than punitive.

New York State had lost out on the first round of Race to the Top funding, in part because there was no agreement that teachers and principals would be evaluated by student test results. Once the unions agreed to this, the federal funding was forthcoming.

The Education Law on annual reviews for principals and teachers requires that 40 percent be based on student performance; 20 percent of that is from student growth data based on state assessments and 20 percent is on locally selected assessments.

Staff are evaluated at four levels: highly effective, effective, developing, and ineffective.

The testing, said Wiles has “become extremely high stakes because teachers’ futures depend on them.”

If a teacher gets two “ineffective” ratings two years in a row, it may lead to an expedited process for removal, she said.

No Guilderland teachers were deemed “ineffective,” the lowest rating, she said.

Wiles called the remaining 60 percent “the best part” as those measures could be locally developed. Guilderland selected “state-of-the-art” rubrics, she said, paired with classroom observations.

Wiles also said that the new requirements came “at a time when we have the most significant financial challenge in a generation.” The “push and pull has played out,” she said, in the midst of staff and teacher reductions and increased class sizes across the board.

“We absolutely had to re-direct priorities,” she said. “There are local needs that are unmet.”

Common Core

Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton reiterated his views that the Common Core Standards adopted by New York along with 45 other states and three territories may, indeed, improve learning, but tests for the standards were administered last year before new curricula had been developed and taught, leading to widespread public and political discontent.

The first year of the new testing, there was a decline in scores with just 30 percent of the students across the state achieving proficiency, he said.

Statewide, 31.1 percent of students in third through eighth grades were considered proficient in English and 31 percent in math. At Guilderland, 48.3 percent of students earned scores on the English tests showing they were proficient, and 50.9 percent did so in math.

This week, in his budget address, the governor called for a panel to review the implementation of the state’s Common Core Standards.

While Singleton noted there has been “no shortage of controversy,” he went on to assert, “Common Core is not the root of the issue”; rather, he said, it is “flawed initiation.”

He also said that “pieces of the Common Core are light years better than the old standards.” But “the Common Core gets thrown in as the root of the problem….At least once a decade, there’s a change in learning standards,” he said. “This one is very, very rushed; that’s the root of the problem.”

Singleton also said he is proud that Guilderland hasn’t had “a knee-jerk reaction” to grab modules posted as models by the state, but rather has carefully reviewed the online posts to see what might enhance its own curricula.

Singleton explained this week, in terms of the new Common Core Standards, why the 20 Guilderland teachers deemed “developing” might have ended up with that designation. He gave the example of a hypothetical eighth-grade English teacher whose students would have been tested last year on Common Core-based state assessments.

“Those kids had no Common Core in kindergarten through seventh grade,” said Singleton. “The test was based on a new set of standards, yet the results were used for APPR,” he said referring to the state-required Annual Professional Performance Review.

He noted, again, that 70 percent of students across the state did not achieve proficiency in the test and concluded, “To take these results you knew would be less than stellar, it didn’t mean much...yet by Education Law, we needed to give those teachers a TIP.”

When New York agreed to have teachers and principals evaluated, in part, on students’ scores, that added another layer of tests to requirements that had been in place for nearly a decade under the federal No Child Left Behind legislation.

While New York State was recently given a waiver on No Child Left Behind testing, Singleton said, the only “significant shift” is that eighth-graders in accelerated math classes will no longer have to take the eighth-grade math test along with the Regents exam. “It has not reduced the volume of testing at all,” he said.

The new requirements for APPR meant that, for students’ progress to be measured at the end of the year, there had to be a baseline at the beginning.

For grades and subjects where standardized tests were not already in place, Guilderland, like other districts, scrambled to find tests in time to meet looming state deadlines. Guilderland settled during the prior school year on tests from Northwest Educational Assessment.

The board heard objections from teachers about those tests when they were first administered in the fall of 2012. Singleton said at that time, “It’s been a challenge for us to wrestle with requirements which we don’t necessarily agree with.”

Administrators worked with teachers over the summer to develop Guilderland’s own measures rather than relying on the outside tests.

Ultimately, in-house tests were developed in English and math for students in kindergarten through third grade to be used this school year. Northwest Educational Assessment tests will be used for the other grades until next year, when more in-house measures will have been developed.

Superintendent Wiles told the board, “NWEA was not a good fit for us.”

“In the future, we’ll focus more on locally developed measures,” Singleton said this week. “The assessments will be performance-based rather than multiple choice.”

He described the Guilderland-developed tests as being “multi-dimensional.” In English, for example, that means a test will include a portion on reading, a portion on writing, and a portion combining the two.

Also new this year, the first state Regents exam based on the Common Core will be given in algebra. Students will also have a chance to take the traditional Regents and, for this year only, use the higher of the two scores. The new Regents exam, like the old ones, will be a pen-and-paper test rather than a computerized one, said Singleton.

Singleton also said that Common Core math involves a narrower and deeper study of fewer concepts with coherence connecting across grade levels. While the concepts shift with the grade levels, the practices remain the same.

Singleton said of the new high school sequence, with Common Core algebra no longer being integrated with geometry, as it was a year ago,  “It’s essentially going back in time with some modifications.”

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